I was in the locker room with four other masters runners. One of our group made notice of another’s arm warmers. They’re so light and sheer, said the first, unlike any he’d ever seen before. Who makes them? The owner giggled sheepishly, looked around, and confessed: they’re his wife’s pantyhose. All of us were married with children, and thus, no stranger to oddball displays of ingenuity. There were high-fives all around.
The best of the best, sort of
My cohorts and I were the masters contingent of the elite runners in the 2015 Fargo Marathon. The use of the word “elite” here is relative. The Fargo Marathon is a smaller race, far away from big population centers, so they need to do what they can to drum up press. One way to do that is to make sure the winners finish with impressive times. So Fargo had a generous program in place to entice faster athletes to take part.
I snuck into the elite masters division because I had both run a 2:49 recently in Indianapolis, and was 46 years old. 2:49 is what most would call a “good” masters time. It is not “elite”. But it doesn’t hurt to ask, so I wrote the race and asked if I could participate elitely. They said yes. And in one moment I went from being a middle-aged hack to being an invited elite athlete (even if, technically, I had invited myself).
One of the most exciting aspects, for me, about the elite component of this race was that I would get to supply my own water bottles, which would be waiting for me at the three elite water tables on the course. This is what they do in the Olympics. So it’s like I’m running in the Olympics.
I arrived the day before the race. At the expo I handed over my water bottles. I didn’t need to put my name on them. I had bought them in the kids sippy-cup section at the department store, so the purple elephants and pink stars on the side set them apart pretty well.
They put us up at the Element Hotel, which I saw advertised as “The Official Hotel for Elite Athletes at the Fargo Marathon”. I was happy that my presence there was helping the hotel sell more rooms.
The Fargo Marathon has an incredibly unique feature: the race starts and ends inside a domed stadium, the Fargodome. The indoor start would turn out to be quite helpful, given that the temperatures were in the low 30s.
At 6am on race morning I boarded the elite bus (just to clarify: it was the runners on the bus who were elite – the bus was ordinary) that took us to the dome. On arrival we elites went below to the locker rooms to discuss sippy cups and pantyhose.
In any given marathon, there is about a 50-50 chance the start will go smoothly. Fargo 2015 came up tails.
Just minutes before the start the MC said to the crowd, “You’re going to hear a gun, but don’t start running. It’s for the wheelchair division. So don’t start running.” He then introduced the mayor of Fargo, who was to be the starter for the wheelchairs.
The mayor made a big production of saying “Runners, take your marks! Get set!…” It was not the kind of low-key command appropriate for sending off three wheelers; it was a big, dramatic delivery designed to get a large crowd revved up to run a marathon. He fired the gun. The wheelers took off, as did all 1500 marathoners. The pace cars and bikes were taken by surprise – the riders and drivers quickly mounted up to get in front of the crowd bearing down on them. The first minute or two of the race was chaotic, with the wheelers and runners trying not to trip over one another, but it sorted itself out and no one was trampled.
The race had lots of spectators. Only 113,000 people live in Fargo, but most of them were out watching the race. The early miles would have been entirely forgettable, except that there were just lots of people out cheering.
At mile 7 came my big elite moment. I easily picked out the pink stars and grabbed my cup. I took two sips and tossed it to the side of the road. A moment passed. That was it? I felt a little let down. It wasn’t as Olympic as I thought it was going to be.
The next few miles were through a park along the Red River, which often floods badly in the spring. This year there hadn’t been enough snow to create flood conditions during the melt, so the risk of any runners being washed away were low.
MN or ND?
We crossed the river, and the state line, to enter the town of Moorhead, Minnesota, where we spent the next five miles. Later, on the flight home, I chatted with a 50-stater, that is, someone who is trying to run a marathon in all 50 states. I asked if running today’s race meant she could cross two states off her list. Her tone turned deadly serious, her face an unhappy emoticon. “It doesn’t work that way,” she hissed. “One race. One state. That’s the rule.” [editor’s note: I know full well that’s their rule (commandment, really), but I like asking the question because the responses are always entertaining.]
At mile 11 we ran a loop through the quad on the campus of Minnesota State University – Moorhead. A surprising number of students were out cheering for us. I wondered, why aren’t they still in bed, hungover?
A mile later we ran through the Concordia College campus, which, except for a couple squirrels, was empty. That’s more like it, I thought.
Up until the halfway point most of the course had been concrete, and I could feel it. When we switched back to asphalt I felt like I was running on pillows. Nonetheless, I could still feel the residual fatigue from the concrete. If that sounds like I’m setting up an excuse for why I tanked at mile 20, I am.
We crossed back into North Dakota. Here, the course performed a series of switchbacks that resulted in 3 mile-long straightaways through a residential section near downtown. The sidewalks were packed with spectators.
We were running alongside the half-marathoners and most of the cheering was for them. The halfers I would have been passing here were solidly recreational runners. Many of them were either wearing funny costumes or cheering back at the crowd. They were much more of a spectacle than I was.
Pays attention in class: C-
Shortly after the straightaways we hit downtown Fargo. I was still in 3rd place in the masters division, but I knew I was in trouble. The needle on my elite-o-meter was moving steadily back to the left. I held it together as best I could and focused on the road in front of me.
The finishers medal for the race is shaped like the marquee for the iconic Fargo Theater, which is in downtown. But I never saw the theater. When I got the medal after the race I thought it odd that the medal commemorated something we didn’t run past.
A week later I saw the race photos, and there I was, running in front of the marquee. This was startling to me – never before in my life, when I have told myself I need to focus on something, have I been able to do it. But here in Fargo, for the first time ever, not only did I do it, but I did it so well that I missed the highlight of the course.
I’m sorry, but there’s no improvement in his condition
I got my last pink cup of elite water at mile 21. It didn’t help. Another master passed me shortly thereafter and I watched $100 in prize money run off into the distance.
We separated temporarily from the half-marathon at mile 23 and it was instantly desolate. I guess the half-marathoners were just too entertaining.
The Fargodome finally reappeared. Cruelly, we had to circle it once before running down the ramp and back inside to the finish. My bid for increased eliteness was unsuccessful, as I ran the same 2:49 that got me into the race. Still, I felt entitled enough to cut in front of the long line of half-marathoners waiting for food.
I had scheduled my flight home for later in the afternoon. I didn’t think it likely that I would be returning to Fargo anytime soon and wanted to spend a few hours in the city to see what there was to see. Dovetailing perfectly with my plans was the 27th mile Pub Crawl, a self-guided tour of Fargo’s downtown bars. What better way to see a place than through the bottom of a beer glass? For $5 I was to get a plastic beer stein, with the Fargo Theater marquee printed on the side, which I could carry from bar to bar and fill up at a discount.
A local Fargan was walking me to the first tavern when I began to feel unsteady. I begged his leave, found a small park, and lay down next to a tree. Falling in and out of sleep, I didn’t move for an hour-and-a-half.
Just as I finally felt recovered enough to continue my journey, a shadow fell over me. “What’s going on?” the policeman asked.
Trying not to sound groggy, I explained that I had just run the race and needed to rest for a minute. “Do you require assistance?”
No, I’m fine, I just, you know, ran 26 miles and all. I didn’t feel it necessary to tell him that I was headed to a bar. He must have decided that I was no threat to Fargo’s quality of life, so he wished me a good day, and left me to stagger to my feet.
Playing it safe
The Pub Crawl was uneventful, but if I had done a little research ahead of time it could have been perkier. As I was wrapping up and preparing to catch a cab back to the airport I talked to two women who were planning to hit all ten of the official Pub Crawl pubs. They showed me their list. The first two had the little Pub Crawl passport stamps next to them. Pointing to one of the entries further down the list, they asked me, “Did you know this one is a strip club?”
I didn’t. Laughing, they offered their condolences and said I looked disappointed.
I looked at my watch and started to double-check how much time I had before I needed to be at the airport. But I stopped. I decided I did not want even a small chance that I would have to explain to my wife that I missed my flight because two women I met in a bar had talked me into going to a strip club with them.
I bid my new friends adieu, and left for the airport. While I am sure the erotic dancers of Fargo, North Dakota are just as elite as its masters marathoners, my patronage of their performances will have to wait for another day.